Cars Go Vegan
Leather Interiors are on the Way Out
by Yvette C. Hammett
Consumers are becoming more conscious about their purchases in light of the ongoing climate crisis exacerbated by animal-based agriculture. As they begin to make better choices in what they consume, wear and drive, vegan car interiors are becoming more popular. The environmental impact of producing leather, foam and other materials is being replaced in some instances by alternatives that are becoming more readily available to environmentally conscious consumers.
The Toyota Prius line uses Sof-Tex synthetic leather or other synthetic cloth upholstery which bolsters its reputation as a sustainable automaker. Mercedes Benz and BMW are offering customers plant-based alternatives and Tesla has been dropping leather from its upholstery choices for a while now, with the Model 3 and Model Y already sporting vegan-only interiors. The Volvo Polestar 2 also comes standard with vegan upholstery, along with recycled wood. And the 2020 Range Rover Evoque, Velar and Jaguar I-Pace SUVs all offer consumers vegan interiors.
Research and development is ongoing in this realm to create faux leather that not only looks good, but is actually more durable and easier to maintain than leather. Vegan “leather” is being produced from cork, glazed cotton and even bark cloth, so it’s not just a matter of replacing animal-based products with unsustainable plastic.
With funding from Honda and Ford, Bharat Bhushan, Ph.D., director of the Nanoprobe Laboratory for Bio- & Nanotechnology and Biomimetics in the John Glenn College of Public Affairs of Ohio State University, Columbus, developed a faux leather that has the potential to be used on both seats and dashboards.
“I work in technology to repel water and oil from a variety of surfaces,” Bhushan says. “Leather gets very sticky when it is hot, so we thought it would be great to repel water or any other contaminant to avoid that stickiness and help it remain clean.” The side benefit, he further notes, is that it’s an alternative to animal hide.
Audi Head of Design Marc Lichte, whose twin daughters are both vegan, says vegan leather is a huge selling point for customers and that both the Audi e-tron GT and Q4 will be animal-free. Faux leather will replace the traditional leather, and all cushions, window trim, armrests, headliners and center consoles will be manufactured with recycled materials.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) made a major push in the past few years to increase production of vegan-based car interiors. In 2016, PETA conducted an investigation into JBS, the world’s largest leather supplier, which sells to car companies from GM to VW and more. “What it found was that the supplier severely mistreats the cattle being raised for the leather with hot irons on the face, electrocution, beatings and cutting their throats while they are still conscious,” says Jennifer Behr, corporate responsibility officer for PETA. “When consumers are shopping, they should take that into consideration. Those interiors came from a cow that lived a miserable life and died a painful one.”
Beyond that, cattle represent a climate risk. The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published a study showing that knowledge of the environmental ramifications from cattle is not well known by the average consumer. “The livestock industry is the source of a broad spectrum of environmental impacts,” the study states. “The first and most important is climate change.” It’s estimated that 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by the livestock industry. Enlightened consumers are using that information to determine what they purchase, from food to cars.
BMW spokesperson Oleg Satanovsky says vegan options are not new for his company; they’ve been around for decades, but options have been updated. BMW uses a material called SensaTec, a new brand name for its non-animal-sourced upholstery “to reflect the more upscale design and feel of the materials,” he contends.
“We look to nature for clues” to develop alternatives, Bhushan says. His research was based on the lotus leaf and its resiliency—it’s both water and oil repellant. “A single species like that can be used for many things,” with little or no environmental impact.
Yvette C. Hammett is an environmental writer based in Valrico, FL. Connect with her at YvetteHammettHull49@gmail.com.